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It’s back-to-school time. For some families that means buying crayons and new backpacks. For others, it’s time for their students to start college.

College expenses can add up; deciding how to pay for college expenses can be a challenge. Planning for college expenses is the first step to maximize family and student dollars.

How do people typically pay for college? It, of course, varies from family to family. Sallie Mae’s report, “How America Pays for College 2018,” finds that two-thirds of families use the three most common funding sources: parent income, scholarships and grants.

Knowing the averages, though, may help you begin the conversation about how your family plans to handle expenses. From Sallie Mae’s report, income and savings from parents and the student pay 47 percent of college expenses each year; 75 percent of these dollars are from the parents. Scholarships and grants pay another 28 percent of the costs. Often both parents and students borrow money, for a total of 24 percent of the total expenses. Around 1-2 percent of dollars are from extended family and friends. Overall, families spent an average of $26,458 on undergraduate education in 2017-18, including the funding from scholarships and grants.

Some families may be able to save enough money to pay for all college expenses, but it’s more typically a mix of dollars. I find it interesting that current parental income accounts for a large percent; 19 percent of total costs (an average of $5,109) came from current income, not savings. For more information, you can find the report at

There’s no right or wrong for who should pay in a family. However, without clear communication, misunderstandings and conflict can happen. It’s important that students know what is expected from them before choosing where to attend college. Talking about what can be realistically afforded is an important part of this conversation too.

It’s also worth discussing strategies to keep college expenses more manageable. Here are six strategies to consider:

First, start saving as early as possible. Don’t wait until you have large amounts of money available to save. Small amounts add up.

Students should submit their FAFSA form early and for each year they plan to attend college. Forms can be submitted starting Oct. 1.

Some scholarships are awarded based on early submissions; late filers may not be considered for these scholarships. Go to for more information.

Students can look for scholarships while in high school and while in college. Even if federal aid is not expected, it’s likely that a FAFSA form will need to be filed to qualify for scholarships from your college.

Pay attention to how much is paid for living costs such as food and housing. For fall 2019, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s estimated costs for an undergraduate show living costs (housing, food, etc.) to be very close to the cost of tuition. Students can manage their living costs to save money.

Community college tuition is significantly lower than most other college tuition. In addition, many times students can live at home while attending community college. The combined savings on housing and tuition is considerable. Consider attending community college for two years and then transferring to another college to finish the degree.

Working part time can help pay for college expenses. If a student can find work on campus for 10-15 hours per week, this may prove to a good balance between working and studying. But if working part time means that a student will need to spend an extra semester or two to finish their degree, then this may not be a cost savings. It’s something to consider, but is not cost-effective for everyone.

For more information about managing expenses while in college, visit UI Extension’s Financial Wellness for College Students website at

Kathy Sweedler is a consumer economics educator at the University of Illinois Extension. Contact her at 217-333-7672 or